Writer: Drew Goddard, Andy Weir (book)
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Donald Glover
Running time: 141mins
The lowdown: Gravity meets Castaway in Ridley Scott’s enjoyable sci-fier. Matt Damon turns his likeability up full wattage as Mark Watney, an astronaut thought dead and stranded on Mars after his team make an emergency getaway during a ferocious storm. While not shooting for the stars in the same way as Interstellar, or indeed Gravity, The Martian ultimately manages to break the gravitational pull of being ordinary.
The full verdict: “I’m gonna science the shit outta this.” So sayeth Mark Watney, while planning on how to grow food and create water on the parched, infertile fourth rock from the sun.
Summing up his character and The Martian as a whole, there’s no problem too big that brain power can’t solve it. Admirable to be sure the high regard scientific endeavour is held in, but it’s also the movie’s Achilles ’ heel.
At no point does one man alone on Mars with little food or water ever feel like a perilous situation. Drew Goddard’s script, adapted from Andy Weir’s online novel turned global bestseller, certainly throws obstacles in Watney’s way.
Within minutes of coming around after the storm, the spaceman is having to perform self-surgery. Elsewhere there are unplanned explosions and breaches of his habitat unit and a rescue mission is years away.
But, even though he has the smartest minds on the planet helping him, via an ingenious way to phone home, solutions seem slightly too convenient… and clumsily introduced. See the revelation that he’s a botanist, therefore can solve that food issue, for details.
Plus, there is little of the existential dread Damon explored in that Interstellar cameo, a few worried confessions to his on-going vlog outweighed by his cheery chutzpah. But, at least he does manage to share screen time with Interstellar co-star Jessica Chastain on this trip.
Back on Earth a gamut of famous faces, including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and a slightly bewildered looking Sean Bean, play NASA top brass working out how to bring their boy back home, while in space Chastain’s mission commander and fellow crew including the always reliable Michael Pena and Kate Mara have their own ideas.
And China, that box office plum the studio’s crave, also lends a helping hand.
But, the real star may be Sir Ridley. 23 films in to a variable career, and his third trip into outer space, this is his best film since 2003’s underrated Matchstick Men and almost expunges the memory of Prometheus.
Keeping the action moving at a quick clip despite the overlong running time, the 77-year old director avoids the embalmed pacing of most his movies, staging a preposterous yet thrilling climax with the same drive the 70-year old George Miller brought to Mad Max: Fury Road’s vehicular mayhem.
Lightweight then, but not weightless, and played with a breezier tone than the trailer and poster suggest, this won’t be remembered as a sci-fi classic but provides a decent fix before J.J. Abrams’ modest space movie arrives in December.